Paper Towns (CBR7 #22)

The longer I sit with my reactions to Paper Towns by John Green the more and more it grows on me. Normally I would have finished this book and had the review up within 24 huors, but life was not cooperating this weekend so instead its been nearly three days since I finished the book before I’ve sat down to examine my thoughts. They are many, and they are varied, which is why I think I’m sticking with a 3.5 rating rounded down to 3. Let’s discuss why:

Paper Towns  is built around the last few months of senior year for Quentin and Margot. Q is your average kid from high school. He has his people (the band kids), he has his best friends (Radar and Ben), he has his weird parents (psychologists!), and he has the girl he pines for (Margot). What John Green excels at is taking characters like these and infusing them with the pathos of the young, without coming across as maudlin or whiny, or worst of all – fake. These characters, as a group, are perhaps Green’s best foray into a full cast of well-developed characters.

Plot wise, there were fits and starts. I hated the introduction. I put the book down for nearly a week after reading it. I don’t know that pulling the information that Q and Margot found a dead body together when they were very young is important as our first data point for these characters. We certainly don’t need several pages of Q explaining how this was the defining moment of what came after. At least not up front. What does come after is Margot going on a revenge campaign and then disappearing, first with Q and then without, we’re along for the ride of watching Q sort out who Margot is to him and their friends, and more importantly who Margot is to herself.

Empathy is the crucial piece of this novel. As we spend time with Q he is learning to empathize with his friends, his parents, and even the bully a few blocks over. He’s also learning that its incredibly difficult to truly know anyone, and if you don’t make the attempt, then you have nothing but an empty place holder where that person should be. The best part, the happiest reading was Margo and Q’s night of adventure. But the pacing of the book struggled after Margot took off and we’re left with Q as he struggles with these big questions.

Other things that Green did that I thought were good was using some heavy hitters of the artist world as big portions of the story, Whitman, I’m looking at you. I also appreciated greatly that the ending wasn’t afraid to be real and true to the characters’ intent. There was no 11th hour change of personality, just discovery and understanding.

Narfna spoke eloquently in her review of how books like Paper Towns are so important for the work they do in teaching us NOT to create Manic Pixie Dream Girls/Boys in our own lives. As much as Margot can be argued to fit into that category, it’s a superficial reading of the narrative, at best. In many ways Paper Towns has the same basic plot points of Green’s earlier works:  a character missing from the narrative through line while being its catalyst (Looking for Alaska) and a road trip story (An Abundance of Katherines), both with a young, male, protagonist. And for that reason, and some stumbling in the beginning, I can’t quite convince myself today to rate this book a 4, but I might later. Reading this book also had me dropping my rating for The Fault in Our Stars down to a 4 from a 5, so I’m obviously up for changing ratings.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

An Abundance of Katherines (CBR6 #13)

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I finished this book last weekend, and keep meaning to write the review but I think the fact that it escaped me for nearly 5 days says a lot about my reading experience. But let’s start at the beginning.

Back for the CBR4 I read The Fault in Our Stars and like most of the other Cannonballers, I loved it. So, I decided to see what else this John Green fellow had written. Being me I needed to start back at the beginning so last year I read Looking for Alaska and while it was quite enjoyable, it was no TFiOS. But that’s to be expected from an author’s first novel. That’s why I started at the beginning of Green’s oeuvre, to give myself proper expectations by reading the author’s works in order; I would hopefully be able to trace his writing trajectory.

So, when I went into this year’s John Green read, An Abundance of Katherines I was expecting another quite to very good book. And, honestly, it was just okay. I gave it a three star rating over on Goodreads, but really its closer to a 2.5, and it only gets the extra 0.5 because of Hassan. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

An Abundance of Katherines is the story of Colin Singleton and the 19* girls named Katherine he has dated in his short 18 years. But it isn’t. It’s the story of his breakup with K19 and the emotional aftereffects of said breakup. But it isn’t that either. It’s the story of Colin coming to terms with being a child prodigy who isn’t going to be a genius. But it’s not entirely that either.  It’s the story of the road trip that he and his best (and only) friend Hassan take to help get Colin over the break-up/prodigy problem and Hassan’s untethered lifestyle in the post high school pre-college place he finds himself.  And it’s a little this, but the road trip doesn’t last very long. What we find the story to be about is Colin getting over himself and perhaps finally falling for a girl not named Katherine.

I had some issues with the story, mostly in how Green decided to lay out the storytelling. The present we are spending with Colin is interspersed with his remembrances of the Katherines and his obsession with figuring out a mathematical equation that will allow him to predict the outcome of any romantic relationship. It cuts in and out and is generally unsatisfactory because instead of easily flowing from present experience into past recollection it instead is a rough cut nearly every time.  Colin is also a tough character to root for and his incessant anagramming and various other prodigy ticks got in the way of connecting to the character. But perhaps my biggest gripe is that we don’t ‘meet’ the legion of Katherines until near the very end and it’s such a stretch to get 19* in that I feel the book would’ve been better if there had been only 9 or 10 Katherines. That’s still abundance, I promise.

Okay, let’s talk about what I liked. Hassan. And Lindsey. And the Oldsters in Gutshot. What Green always has going for him is that he can craft great characters. Colin is a well-rounded character even if he’s not a great protagonist, but the supporting cast in An Abundance of Katherines is what kept me moving through the book and not ignoring it for other titles. Hassan’s busting of Colin, as only a true friend would do, were some of my favorite parts. Those and the footnotes.

Yes, I said footnotes. Since we are dealing with a protagonist who is a prodigy there are things he knows that the common reader won’t. So we get footnotes to explain the conversations happening in other languages and the math. And the history factoids, etc. And those I LOVED. I’ve seen some reviews saying they couldn’t be bothered with the math bits, and to me that’s just lazy. The footnotes explain the math the way a non-math person would need them explained and it gave insight into how it fit into the book. You don’t need to be able to solve the equation that Colin eventually writes, but the Appendix explains how it was written and how it works and it was just plain interesting.

To recap – I’d say read this first in your John Green reading and not quickly after reading his other books.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

*the 19 Katherines thing really annoyed me because there were only 18. He dated one twice. AND Colin was counting girls who he’d had relationships with which lasted mere hours. Now, I understand that middle school and high school kids tend to do this kind of thing, but it felt like such a stretch to get to the magical K-19 which I swear Green was basing off the story of the Russian submarine that it felt unnecessary and distracting. Really Colin of the no friends and bad rapport with your peers, you’ve had 19 girlfriends by age 18? Really? It just didn’t line up with who the character is in the rest of the book. End rant.

Looking for Alaska (CBR5 #19)

After reading The Fault in Our Stars last year and seeing many positive reviews of John Green’s earlier work I decided to start at the beginning of his oeuvre and have a read through. That brought me to Looking for Alaska. It also didn’t hurt that it made the top ten most frequently challenged books list of 2012 for having offensive language, being sexually explicit, as well as being unsuited for age group. I had to see what all the fuss was about.

We start the novel meeting Miles “Pudge” Halter’s life growing up has been uneventful. He’s virtually friendless and has decided that attending his father’s boarding school will be the change he needs to seek his “Great Perhaps”.  When Miles arrives at Culver Creek Boarding School his life becomes the opposite of uneventful. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself; is funny, sexy, and a mess. There was Miles’ life before Alaska, and his life after.
The book itself is set up in two sections, Before and After.  We’re with Pudge throughout the novel and his various adventures with new friends Alaska, the Colonel, Lara and Takumi as he navigates the events of his junior year of high school and how his relationships with all these people effect the person he is becoming. While I don’t believe in banning books, I did have moments where I blanched knowing my 14 year old niece read the scenes containing a blowjob and the vast amount of underage drinking, and then I was immediately mad at myself because I did a lot of underage drinking and smoking and was well versed in various sexual acts even though I had yet to personally take part in them at a similar age. The characters on the page are very real, but also have that signature John Green touch of being slightly enhanced from anyone you actually know.  I whole-heartedly suggest Looking for Alaska make its way onto your to read list.

The Fault in Our Stars (CBR4 #15)

This book. This freakin’ book. I tweeted it as my Friday Read a couple weeks back and the lovely MsWas told me to get the tissues. While I didn’t out and out cry I did want to curl up with a blanket and hug something or someone when I got to the conclusion. But I was warned about that (h/t narfna).

This book has been reviewed a few times for cannonball, but it’s my first experience with John Green, and although this is YA, and to a certain extent reads that way, it was good times. Green kept me on my toes even when I was pretty sure I knew what was coming. It should be known that this book’s main characters are all cancer patients at various stages. You definitely need to know this before you sign on to read it, because as I said before – you might need tissues or a blanket to get through the end.

Our narrator through the journey is Hazel, she is sixteen and cancer has gone ahead and settled in her lungs. There is a miracle drug (just in the book) that has stopped the growth and for the time being she’s holding steady but required to bring her own oxygen wherever she goes. However, her mother has decided that she’s depressed and with her doctor’s direction, Hazel is forced to attend a support group. Hazel doesn’t want to go, stating that depression is merely a side effect of dying and not to be worried about. But, as it is in the world of fiction, it turns out to have been for the best that she attends.

At support group we meet Augustus and Isaac. Isaac is a known quantity to Hazel. Augustus on the other hand is something new altogether. I appreciate that Green wasn’t afraid to write the meet cute in a cancer support group. Life doesn’t stop just because you have cancer.  Hazel shares with Augustus her favorite book and they begin their relationship from there.

I won’t devolve into a plot summary. But the relationships these characters share read and ring true. You get it all with these characters: hope, love, sorrow, tragedy, triumph, humor. The whole deal. 

Green is careful to point out in his Author’s Note that this book is not about anyone, and is strictly speaking a work of fiction. I respect that. I will however point out The Fault in Our Stars was dedicated to Esther Earl, who’s picture reminds me of what I thought Hazel looks like. Her family has set up a foundation in her honor to support cancer families, This Star Won’t Go Out and is worth a visit, particularly if you have some dollars you can afford to donate.